When you’re in a new situation — like thinking about how to do engagement in a Covid-19 environment —  it’s easy to shape your decisions based on the experience you just had. And sometimes those decisions turn out to be flawed. That could easily be because you just fell victim to a Cognitive Bias and let your experience overwhelm your perception of the new reality.

That doesn’t have to happen. Cognitive biases are a basic part of human behaviour involving errors in thinking or mental filters that can affect our decisions and actions. Acknowledging them can deepen our understanding of organization stakeholders and lead to more effective approaches for managing conflicts, handling negotiations and creating positive change in our area of influence. Incorporating some of these considerations into stakeholder engagement and communications can help uncover why engagement strategies may have not been successful.

Here are five filters to keep in mind.

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Confirmation Bias is our tendency to avoid information that challenges our views. We tend to choose to accept or disregard facts based on how they fit with our pre-existing beliefs.

Deep down, most of us don’t want to be wrong. It’s human nature. Being wrong makes us feel weak or unworthy, and we see it as a character flaw. Ego also plays a part — protecting our image and sense of self-worth can feel more important than the truth.

We were working for an organization that was subcontracting foreign workers for the construction of its facilities. Local communities and administrative authorities strongly opposed this on the belief that foreign workers were the main cause of local crime and gave examples to support this claim. The organization countered with examples of other crimes where the perpetrators were local residents, not immigrants — but for each counterclaim, the community came back with more examples showing that immigrants were the problem. 

Things might have turned out differently if the organization had recognized the bias present in the community and tried a different approach, like moving away from the topic of crime and finding a common motive for accepting the foreign subcontractors. 

Perhaps risks and fears could have been mitigated with assurance processes like a code of conduct for all subcontractors, and a grievance mechanism, developed in collaboration with workers and communities. Relationships might have been improved through social events like a soccer tournament with mixed teams or a public celebration to mark a shared company-community milestone.

Unbiased experience tells us that facts don’t always win fights. When we see Confirmation Bias at play in our organizations or communities we don’t always have to try to use a knowledge injection — “if they only knew the truth!” — to change behaviours.

Anchoring Bias
The first piece of information presented in a negotiation or collective decision-making process usually establishes a range of possibilities in people’s minds that becomes hard to change. For example, there was a project in Cameroon where villages were asked to identify community development initiatives in which a company could invest. The company saw this as a great way of establishing a community development program founded on participative decision-making.

However, it did not give the community any guidelines or criteria to use for its suggestions. As a result, the community looked at the only example they could find, which was a much larger organization nearby that had a mature operation. The differences, of course, between a startup and a large, mature operation can be huge. Because the company abdicated its responsibility to help set the context for what was possible, the community developed unrealistic expectations and wouldn’t let them go. Conflict followed, and what could have been a tool to build strong relationships turned into a wedge that drove them apart.

Conservatism Bias
One example of Conservatism Bias involves the extractive sector vis-à-vis the environment. The average person is slow to accept the notion that a mine, oil company, or even a forestry operation can conduct its operations and be environmentally responsible at the same time. People tend to hang on to their earliest understandings, based on decades of evidence that such operations destroy nature. They’re not entirely wrong — there are still too many companies around the world that aren’t operating responsibly. But in some areas, things started to change for the better years ago. People can be slow to acknowledge, despite evidence, that many organizations act responsibly and adhere to strong standards.

Here are a couple of other biases that can get in the way of good engagement.

  • Choice-supportive Bias: When we choose something, we tend to feel positive about it, even if that choice has flaws. An organization might think that its site manager’s pet project, say a book donation program for local schools, is wonderful and must be kept even though local communities have a more urgent need for something like a clean water program. Not to mention that a water program probably aligns much better with the company’s impact management and human rights protection goals. 
  • Availability Bias: People overestimate the importance of the immediate examples that are available to them. For example, a worker might argue that PPE doesn’t make much of a difference because his father worked at a factory without PPE for over 40 years and never got hurt.

It’s all about human behaviour. And how communities respond to change is something organizations usually overlook. That’s understandable — after all, their core business isn’t psychology. But understanding these parts of human behaviour can make a real difference to an organization’s ability to secure the social acceptance that help it and the communities in which it operates thrive.